Runner beans

Quintessentially British, runner beans are a delicious garden staple. Most varieties grow tall and produce colourful red, white or bi-coloured flowers. Shop bought runners can be tough and stringy, but picking your own will make you see them in a new light. To many gardeners, summer is incomplete without them.

Runner beans

Sow

Runner beans are tender and don't like frost, so if you want them early, get them started off indoors.

Sow indoors

If you have room, start the beans off indoors on a windowsill or in a propagator, in late April or May. Sow one bean per pot 5cm (2in) deep. Harden off (acclimatise) young plants, but wait to plant them out until the risk of frost has passed, usually in late May/early June.

Sow outdoors

Wait until late May or June to sow the seeds outdoors. It is best to start the beans in small pots. Sow one bean per pot 5cm (2in) deep. Place the pots outside in a coldframe, or in a sheltered position. Once the beans reach 8cm (3in) tall you can plant them out into their final positions, this will be in June or July.

Alternatively, sow your chosen runner beans directly in the ground from mid-May until end of June, 5cm (2in) deep, two seeds to a 2.4m (8ft) bamboo cane (see below), spaced 15cm (6in) apart; thin to one seedling per cane. For the ideal site, see below.

Grow

Runner beans need a warm, sunny spot in well-drained soil. This kind of position also benefits pollinating insects, which are essential for the plants to set pods. Fork in some well-rotted manure, before you sow your beans.

Runner beans need a support to climb up. The traditional method is to grow them individually up inwardly sloping 2.4m (8ft) tall bamboo canes tied near their tops to a horizontal cane, like an A frame. However if you slope the bamboo canes so that they meet in the middle and tie them there so that the ends of the canes extend beyond the row (more like an X), you will find picking is easier and the yield is usually better.

In smaller spaces, a wigwam of canes takes up less room and helps produce an ornamental feature.

Loosely tie the plants to their supports after planting; after that they will climb naturally. Remove the growing point once the plants reach the top of their support. This encourages side stems.

Keep an eye out for slugs and blackfly that may attack the plants.

Flower set

Runner beans sometimes fail to set and there are a number of causes and solutions.

Ensuring the soil is constantly moist and doesn't dry out is the first key to success; mulch in June and water well in the evenings.

Flower set is better in alkaline, chalky soils. If your soil is neutral or acidic it pays to use lime.

If you regularly have problems and live in warmer counties, it would be worth trying beans with some French bean parentage which set pods more easily in warmer summers. Examples are 'Firestorm' and 'Moonlight'.

More on problems with runner bean flower set

Common problems

Black bean aphid

Black bean aphid: Sap-sucking aphids will disfigure plants and cause stunting to leaves and stems.

Remedy: In the case of broad beans, pinch out infested tips. On other beans, catch populations when small and squash.

More info on Black bean aphid

Slugs and snails

Slugs and snails: These feed on the young seedlings and you'll see the tell tale slime trail on the soil around your crop, as well as on the leaves.

Remedy: There are many ways to control slugs and snails, including beer traps, sawdust or eggshell barriers, copper tape and biocontrols.

More info on Slugs and snails

No/ very few beans

No/ very few beans: This is one of the most common problems of bean growing and is usually caused by lack of moisture and/or poor pollination by insects.

Remedy: Plant or sow beans into soil that has had plenty of organic matter, such as well-rotted manure added the previous autumn, as this will aid moisture and nutrient retention around the roots. Plant in a sheltered site as this will encourage bees to visit and pollinate the plants.

More info on No/ very few beans

Harvesting

Start harvesting when the pods are 15-20cm (6-8in) long and certainly before the beans inside begin to swell.

It is vital that you pick regularly to prevent any pods reaching maturity; once this happens plants will stop flowering and no more pods will be set. If you pick regularly, plants will crop for eight weeks or more.

Recipes

Nigel Slater recommends serving this runner beans with lemon and garlic crumbs, as a lovely side dish for grilled fish.

Varieties

'White Lady' AGM:A top-quality bean with fleshy, smooth, stringless pods.

‘Hestia’:This is a new dwarf runner bean, ideal for containers, only growing to about 45cm (18in), but still producing high quality, delicious beans. As it is short it can be netted against bird attack.

‘St George’ AGM:A heavy cropping, semi-stringless bean, with bi-coloured red and white flowers.

‘White Apollo’ AGM:The long, smooth fleshy pods crop over a long season and are excellent quality.


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